'Exodus: Gods and Kings'
The strangest major studio release last spring was Darren Aronofsky’s wacky ‘Noah’. In a perverse way, it makes sense that 2014 should wrap up with another ambiguous Old Testament blockbuster. Ridley Scott’s twist on the Ten Commandments serves up a Moses with questionable sanity and harshly violent CinemaScope spectacle in a manner that the old Hollywood Biblical epics wouldn’t dare to touch. ‘Exodus’ is no masterpiece, but it’s big, pretty, expensive and occasionally quite interesting. Fans of the book might not appreciate all the changes to the mythology, though. They’re harder to please than comic book fans, so the studio should be nervous.
The plot is of course the story of Moses (Christian Bale), an orphan boy who grew up in an Egyptian palace. He’s now grown into a brilliant general with the Pharaoh’s (John Turturro) ear and he’s best buds with the prince and future king Rhamses (Joel Edgerton). Once Rhamses takes power, his quiet resentment for Moses grows. When he hears rumors that Moses is secretly a Jew who was adopted by his Egyptian stepmother out of a basket, he has Moses banished.
From there, Moses lives in exile and even has a family, until one night a dream about a little boy and a burning bush convinces him that he’s seen God. Moses decides to take his pre-ordained role as the leader of the Jews and kicks off a rebellion amongst the slaves. When regular boom-bang rebellion tactics don’t work fast enough, Moses prays super hard and a series of plagues besets the kingdom. Eventually, Moses leads the Jews across the desert to freedom. The Red Sea gets parted. Yadda yadda yadda… You know the story, only this time there’s a big battle in the parted sea because it’s a Ridley Scott movie.
On the surface, Scott’s goal with the film is to reclaim the lost Hollywood genre of the Biblical epic as a blood and guts spectacle for contemporary audiences. The big sets and crazy costumes of the old days are here. (The award for silliest costume is a toss-up between the cavalcade of ridiculous clothes that Turturro wears and Ewen Bremner’s insane get-up.) However, now they come with inevitable CGI enhancements, comically clichéd “Middle East” music, and the massive bloody battles that Scott made his own in the secular Roman epic ‘Gladiator’.
As a work of big expensive entertainment, the movie is fine. Scott is a master of that form and knows how to craft gigantic pretty pictures, as well as make his audiences’ palms sweaty. Unfortunately, Scott’s not the world’s greatest storyteller, and all of his typical flaws are on display here. Dialogue scenes play long and dreary, as if even the director was bored shooting them. It’s also quite clear that even with a 150 minute running time, Scott made mincemeat of certain subplots and characters in the editing room. As a result, the movie plays awkwardly. I have no doubt that there will inevitably be a Director’s Cut Blu-ray. Whether or not a longer version of the movie is better will remain a mystery until then. The film is a long sit as it is, so Scott’s editorial mercy is appreciated for now, even if narrative flow has been sacrificed.
What makes ‘Exodus’ more compelling than it has any right to be is the subtext. All of the events of the typical Moses tale are here to be taken literally. Yet, Scott is clearly ambivalent about the existence of God and slips those feelings into his movie. (It’s likely no coincidence that the film is dedicated to the memory of the director’s brother, Tony Scott, whose death was tragic and irrational.) Scott’s version of the tale presents a Moses who could very well have seen God, but also could be going insane.
The nature of the mass deaths of the plagues and the impartial cruelty of those “acts of God” is explored openly, and Christian Bale offers an ideal Moses for this take on the material. While most of the performances surrounding him are histrionic in a manner suited to an old-timey Biblical epic, Bale plays Moses as a damaged, confused and lost man. Whether or not he finds salvation or insanity from his God is never made clear by Bale or Scott, and their film is far more interesting for it.
‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ might be indulgent, over-long and outdated blockbuster filmmaking, but at least it’s blockbuster filmmaking that wants its audience to have a complex relationship with the subject matter. That’s an admirable ambition from Scott and Bale. It’s just a shame that they got beaten to the punch by Darren Aronofsky’s superior ‘Noah’, which sprung from similar motivations but pushed its ideas much farther.
Ah well, the two films play like an unexpected franchise now. A third chapter to this spiritually questioning Biblical trilogy would be most welcome if any other filmmaker is up to the task – unless you count Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, in which case the trilogy is now complete.